What Is Res Ipsa Loquitur?


If you are involved in a lawsuit, you and your attorney have to prove certain things. In a personal injury auto accident lawsuit where you are suing another driver, one of the things you usually need to prove is that the other driver was negligent and that the negligence caused or contributed to the accident.

Negligence in Personal Injury Cases

If you were hurt in an accident, and you sue the other driver, you may be entitled to payment for your medical expenses, lost wages, and the pain and suffering that the injury caused. First, though, to win your case or get a good settlement, you usually have to show that the other driver was careless — in legal terms, that the other driver was “negligent.”

But what do you do if it seems like it’s common sense that the other driver was negligent, but you don’t have any direct evidence to prove it? That’s where the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur may help. Your lawyer can use it in a situation where the type of accident that happened could only have happened if someone was negligent.

The Rules of Evidence

To prove something in a courtroom, your lawyer has to provide evidence and has to follow certain rules — the “rules of evidence.” You’ve probably seen this played out in courtroom dramas. When the lawyers in these dramas yell out “Objection, your honor!” they are about to argue that the other lawyer has done something that violates the rules of evidence.

The rules of evidence can get complicated (which you probably won’t see in a TV drama). One thing the rules cover is which party has to prove something. The legal term for this is the “burden of proof.” If you were injured in an accident, and you are suing the other driver, normally, you (the plaintiff) would be the one who has to prove that the other driver (the defendant) was negligent. In legal terms, the burden of proof would be on you.

Res ipsa loquitur is an exception to that rule. In cases where res ipsa loquitur applies, you just have to bring up certain facts — but you don’t have to prove directly that the other driver was negligent. The burden of proof then shifts to the defendant, who has to prove that he or she was not negligent. If the defendant fails to do that, then the court accepts that the defendant was, in fact, negligent.

What Does Res Ipsa Loquitur Mean?

Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase that means “the thing speaks for itself.” Sometimes, when you can’t prove the other party’s negligence directly, you may be able to point to certain facts about the accident that “speak for themselves.” That is, given what happened, the only reasonable conclusion is that the other party acted negligently.

The res ipsa loquitur doctrine originally arose in an 1863 case where a barrel of flour fell out of a second-story warehouse window and landed on the plaintiff who was walking by in the street below. In that case, the facts “spoke for themselves” because you wouldn’t expect a barrel of flour to fall out of a window unless someone was being negligent. There is no other logical explanation.

To use res ipsa loquitur in a car accident case, instead of proving the other driver’s negligence directly, your attorney will put forth facts that show that it is logical to conclude that the driver was negligent. To do this, your attorney needs to show three things (called “elements”):

  • That type of accident normally wouldn’t happen unless someone was negligent.
  • You didn’t cause the accident and neither did a third party (someone other than you and the defendant).
  • The defendant had a legal obligation not to be negligent in that situation.

If you can show all these elements, then you have what is called a “rebuttable presumption” of negligence. That means that the court will accept that you have shown the defendant was negligent unless the defendant can successfully challenge any of the three things you’ve put forth. So, after you show the three elements, the ball then goes into the defendant’s court. The legal term for this is the “burden of proof shifts” to the defendant.

If the defendant can’t prove that any of the elements are false, then the court presumes that the defendant was negligent.

Hire an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer

To most people, the concept of res ipsa loquitur may seem exotic. To an experienced personal injury lawyer, it’s all in a day’s work.

If you or a loved one have been injured in an accident, you may have a lot of questions about what your options are now. At the law firm of Raynes & Lawn, we have more than 50 years of experience fighting for the rights of our personal injury clients. We’ve been honored to appear on many lists of local and national top lawyers, but what motivates us the most is seeing our clients get the justice they deserve.

We invite you to call us at 1-800-535-1797 for a free consultation. We will evaluate your case and discuss with you what you could do next. There are deadlines for when you can file a personal injury lawsuit, so we urge you to call us today!

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